An atheist guide to love

Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I was taught that atheists are selfish individuals incapable of truly loving others. When, … Continued

Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I was taught that atheists are selfish individuals incapable of truly loving others. When, as a young adult, I felt myself losing my grasp on my faith, I was afraid. I worried that without a divine purpose in my life, and without a biblical command to care about others, I would live a selfish and lonely existence.

What I’ve come to realize over time is that when it comes to love and relationships the difference between religious believers and atheists is simply that atheists don’t have religious dogma instructing them on how and who to love and how to carry out or form relationships. Everything else—the desire to be loved, the dedicated parental instincts, the altruistic sensibilities, the sense of loyalty to one’s family and friends—is still there. Those things flow not from religion, but from our basic humanity.

Without instructions flowing from religious dogma, atheists are free to simply focus on finding ways to build healthy relationships and on setting a healthy balance between self and others. Given the lack of atheist dogma, this is a very individual thing. Many atheists marry and raise children together, others get divorced, and still others choose not to marry, or form alternative families or engage in polyamory. As an atheist, there’s no set rule for what a family or a relationship is supposed to look like. Instead, it’s up to you.

My daughter is only three, but she has already learned some important lessons in preschool. She informed me with a very grownup demeanor one day last week that if you want someone to be nice to you, you need to be nice to them. This, when combined with humans’ natural altruism, is what I was missing when, as an evangelical Christian, I thought atheists were of necessity selfish individuals who lived joyless and lonely lives. We all want love and support, and we also know intuitively (and often through experience) that we won’t receive those things if we don’t give them in turn. This may sound mercenary, but I think we all understand deep down that if we want to benefit from community with others we need to give back as well. I also think that we all understand on some level that giving can be just as fulfilling as getting, and that helping others can be just as rewarding as receiving help ourselves.

Love and relationships are not the province of any religion: they are universal.

I value my relationship with my husband because I like having a life partner there to support me, someone who can encourage me when I’m down, laugh with me when I’m happy, hold me when I cry and back me up when I need help. And I, in turn, am there for him. This partnership we have is beautiful not because we believe it’s prescribed by some sort of religious dogma but rather because we’re two individuals who have grabbed hands and are walking through life side by side. And for us, that’s enough.

My husband and I have two young children, and the love of a parent and child is one of those things that transcends religion or lack thereof. It’s a fundamentally human thing. And like marriage or community, it too is cooperative. I give to them, they give back to me and together we build something beautiful and rewarding. We smile together, we laugh together and together we become exasperated, but more than any of that we know that we belong to each other. That belonging is a beautiful thing.

The evangelical Christianity of my youth prescribes specific roles for individuals, declares particular patterns for relationships and lays out detailed scripts. Husbands are supposed to be like this and wives are supposed to be like that, families are supposed to function in this specific way, sex is allowed only inside marriage, and because God has commanded humanity to multiply and fill the earth it is every couple’s duty to have at least a few children. Being an atheist means existing without these scripts. It means being able to form your own families and to find your own meaning and your own sense of togetherness. It also means being able to love free from coercion or guilt. It means leaving aside “the rules” and forming our own.

God doesn’t have a monopoly on love. It is something we create by ourselves.

Libby Anne blogs for Patheos at Love, Joy, Feminism!

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  • Louise10

    What a beautiful and rational description of love and partnership. I can’t imagine anyone saying it better. Thanks, Libby.

  • DrRP1

    You’d make a lousy atheist.

  • Rusty Yates

    As I transitioned out of religion I found that too. Even though I moved out of religion when I was in the 10 to 12 year range I noticed that good people used religion in good ways and bad people used religion in bad ways. Any behavior can be justified with religion or reason.

    I was much happier out of religion. It was much easier to learn and make sense of the world. When I was raising children, it was so much fun to watch them develop their moral stature. My wife and I raised them with a little understanding of the religious world but no push one way or the other. They both went through a religious phase and then became atheists.

    I am so heartened by the secular movement. I looks like we just might shake off the superstition one of these days.

    Enjoyed the article, thanks.

  • Rongoklunk

    Fine article. You might have mentioned that atheists don’t believe god exists – because there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that he does exist – except some religious folks say he does.
    In India people tell you that Vishnu exists, and Hari Krishna and dozens of other gods exist, But there’s no evidence for them either. And the ancients of course – in their stunning ignorance, invented hundreds of gods – that we now know were mythical. Making up gods is what we humans do, or did, back when we knew almost nothing about the world we found ourselves in.
    Science has taught us what actually exists. And gods don’t.

  • nkri401

    All this talk of love is God, Krishina, light, water, moutains, chocolate, etc.

    No, it’s not.

    Love just is.

  • Aquuesandra Dom Cronqvist

    I don’t agree with your perspective as to where love comes from but I appreciate the writeup and this article. Cheers!

  • Aquuesandra Dom Cronqvist

    And while i’m at it I hope you have a happy valentines day libby

  • allinthistogether

    Slovensko,
    Love is available to everyone to choose to practice and give, whether or not they believe in God. The fundamentals of the Buddhist teachings are loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and joy. Love is thoroughly contained in, and powerfully expressed through development of these behaviors. Yes, Jesus did teach love, but so have many other humans. Based on all the measurable evidence, neither god, nor belief in god is essential to loving. Have a great day.

  • Matt McDowall

    love is a chemical reaction in the brain…that is where love comes from. Simply it is just a word to describe a connection with something or someone which releases a series of endorphins in the brain….

    this is easy to test…can you love someone when you are dead? of course not…you cease to exist…because your brain doesn’t work…you can’t think, you can operate…you can’t love.

    Point proven. No go home and study some more.

  • ThomasBaum

    Matt McDowall

    When were you dead to take this “easy to test” test?

  • SODDI

    The hardest part of being an atheist in love is finding a way to get married if you’re out in the sticks.

    These rural judges and JPs want to shove all this god sh*t into the quick courthouse weddings and get very upset if you won’t parrot their bible-bashing in the vows. Just another christian abusing their authority to shove their religion down your throat.

  • cs9243

    Love and compassion do not require religious belief. Theistic religions do not have any monopoly on them. Non theistic religions like Buddhism and Jainism
    have their foundations on love and compassion to everything including animals without any belief in God as a requirement. The more we stay away from theistic religions the world will be a better place.This is the place for the 21st century with all our progress in science.

  • SODDI

    Humans ARE animals. It’s often the best part of us.

  • SODDI

    Jesus is dead and all that remains of anything he said or did is you christians of all sects and cults.

    It’s a dubious, tarnished legacy. There is no love there, just lies.

  • SODDI

    ” Those humans who had these positive qualities tended to work together more effectively, and as a result had more babies. Humans who did not and stayed more of a loner had less success in reproducing. Over time this caused empathetic genes to spread through the population. Working together makes evolutionary sense, because it increases the probability that your genes will be passed on to the next generation.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Our ancestors of 30,000 or 40,000 were very much like us and the emotional bonds within the tribe would be incredibly valuable for survival in good times and bad. That means love and friendship.

    And if two adult males or females established a sexual, romantic liason, what of it? Non-breeding adults are a real asset – they’re not in the breeding contests (which become dominance rituals), they don’t have to drop everything to take care of the children, they can babysit and they are part of the tribe’s hunting and gathering troupes. Someone once called it “the Auntie gene”.

  • SODDI

    That’s “30,000 or 40,000 years ago”. Pardon me.

  • jarandeh

    “But that kind of love is not unconditional love. This is offered by God to all who come to Him through Jesus Christ.”

    ‘If you love and worship me I will love you’ is actually the exact opposite of unconditional love.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Downtown – the idea of love me or I’ll throw in in a lake of fire forever isn’t anything close to love. It is a threat from a evil bully.

  • PhillyJimi1

    I am an atheist. I do think there are very obvious evolutionary reasons why humans are predisposed to believe in gods. Religions were the root of all governments. The common belief in any kind of supernatural or spiritual force for the common good of the village or the tribe was a bonding force that kept the village together in tough times.

    Most people are just raised to believe and don’t ever really have any compelling reasons to question that belief.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Slovensko – I’ll just say it “you’re wrong”. Since I have become an atheist I have learned not to love without conditions I have also unlearned how to hate.

    As a Christian I was taught to hate and not trust everyone who wasn’t like me and who didn’t believe like me. Of course in public I was taught to say “I love everyone” but of course behind closed doors it the venom about the “Evil Muslims” and the “Dirty Jews” spewed forth freely from the “good loving Christians”.

    I don’t hate complete groups of people for religious reasons anymore. I look at everyone as just my brothers and sisters in our common humanity. I am now for the first time free to love and judge them as just a human being just like myself.

    What is obvious is the religious hatred that infests so many but how blind they are to seeing it while being immersed in their own religion’s poison.

    Also Slovensko you have no clue what evolution is. You think you do but it is a twisted definition to suit your own purposes.

  • Rongoklunk

    Read “The Magic of Reality” by Richard Dawkins it will open your eyes for you. He describes what’s actually real and what’s not. And God is not. And the 3500 Gods that the ancients invented”should tell you that it’s what we humans do -”invent’ gods, because of the fear of death and the confusion of our origins. But scientists have figured it out since Darwin discovered our origins. We don’t come from God, but from evolution, from the ape family and if we look back far enough, even the fish were our ancestors, and before that we came from single cell lifeforms. No god needed.

  • Rongoklunk

    My last post was directed to downtown Dave.

  • Rongoklunk

    “In culture after culture,people believe the soul lives on after death
    that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that
    illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts,
    saints, fairies, angels, demons, cherubim,djiinns, devils and gods.
    According to polls more than a quarter of today’s Americans believe in witches, almost half believe in ghosts, half believe in the devil, half believe that the book of Genesis is literally true, sixty-nine percent believe in angels, eighty-seven percent believe Jesus was raised from the dead,and
    ninety-six believe in a God or universal spirit.
    How does religion fit into a mind that one might have thought was designed to reject the palpably not true? The common answer – that people take comfort in the thought of benevolent shepherd, a universal plan, or an afterlife – is unsatisfying because it only raises the question of why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false. A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he was warm. A person face to face with a lion is not out at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit”.

    From “How The Mind Works” by Steven Pinker

  • Rongoklunk

    part two’
    “What is religion? Like the psychology of the arts, the psychology of religion has been muddied by scholars’ attempts to exalt it while understanding it. Religion cannot be equated with our higher, spiritual, humane, ethical yearnings
    (though it sometimes overlaps with them).
    The bible contains instructions for genocide, rape, and the destruction of families, and even the Ten Commandments, read in context, prohibit murder,
    lying, and theft only within the tribe, not against outsiders. Religions have given us stonings, witch burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, abortion clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons, so they can be happily reunited in heaven. As Blaise Pascal wrote:
    “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”
    From “How The Mind works” p555 by Steven Pinker.

  • ThomasBaum

    Rongoklunk

    You wrote, “Read “The Magic of Reality” by Richard Dawkins it will open your eyes for you. He describes what’s actually real and what’s not.”

    So are you saying that Richard Dawkins is omniscient?

  • DRJJJ

    Secularization of church and state certainly hasn’t done us any favors- turn on the news! When we teach our kids they’re all just animals, don’t be suprised when they act like animals! Put another way, when we invite hell into our country, don’t be suprised when all hell breaks loose!

    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:
    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

    Do you accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

    Do you believe in God? “I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books.”

    The general revelation of a God through the micro and macro symphony/complexity of nature (there is a painter behind this painting) the fullfilled prophecy in the Bible (100s and impossible accurate), the life of Christ & his followers (they cleared forests to cruxcify Christians in the 1-2 century & nobody dies like this for a hoax) the near death experiences of millions (see the light), the sense of right/wrong built into all of us (sense of justice-is this learned), the eye witness testimony to Christ resurrection/miracle (takes one eyewitness to condemn a man to death today) the miracle of the Bible (see the dead sea scrolls 2500 years later for example-hasn’t changed) just to name some evidence! It’s the intellectually honest world view folks and there’s room for one more!

    The evolution faith movement taught to our kids as gospel is a hoax and damaging society bad! The missing links are still missing and always will be

  • XVIIHailSkins

    “The general revelation of a God through the micro and macro symphony/complexity of nature”

    This is a complete non sequitur. I think the symphony/complexity indicates that Thor is the one true God.

    “the fullfilled prophecy in the Bible”

    It would probably be redundant for me to point out its hundreds of internal inconsistencies, unfulfilled prophecies, and abjectly immoral preachments.

    “they cleared forests to cruxcify Christians in the 1-2 century & nobody dies like this for a hoax”

    This is just a silly thing to say. How many people died for Jim Jones? How many for national socialism?

    “the near death experiences of millions”

    This is caused by the release of a chemical called DMT, present in the anatomy of other primates/mammals, also another perfect example of a non sequitur.

    “the sense of right/wrong built into all of us”

    We evolved to cooperate.

    “the eye witness testimony to Christ resurrection/miracle (takes one eyewitness to condemn a man to death today)”

    Do you realize how many eye witnesses testified that they saw witches flying on broomsticks in the sixteenth century alone? Another lovely non sequitur.

    “the miracle of the Bible”

    I find the Bible to be morally repugnant. Read Shakespeare, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, etc. if you actually want to experience something profound.

    “It’s the intellectually honest world view folks”

    An interesting choice of words considering this post was a rather long exercise in willful intellectual dishonesty. If your faith is supported by this house of cards then you probably need to talk to God some more, oh and stop proselytizing until you have some evidence that doesn’t disintegrate with one click of the google search bar.

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